How to edit and proofread your essays
I teach graduate level engineers and scientists at the University of Tokyo how to write effectively. Here are some of the tips that have helped them.
HOW TO PROOFREAD
I encourage you to use this four-step proofreading method.
1. SPELL CHECK
to find and fix careless mistakes
- Please use the free spell and grammar check programs offered by MS Word and/or Google Drive.
- Then, please use online grammar software provided by Grammarly.com. I like Grammarly b/c it catches many issues not found by MS Word.
2. READ ALOUD
to check your grammar and style
- Here is the best way I know to avoid Vince's Dirty Dozen.
- Read your essay slowly and at full volume to catch awkward phrasings and words that you are using too frequently.
- Then, record yourself reading your essays and listen to the recording.
- Often, your speaking and listening skills are better than your writing skills. Therefore, hearing your voice through an external device helps you catch mistakes and notice areas for improvement.
3. READ BACKWARDS
to check your logic
- After taking a short break, read your essay in reverse order (sentence-by-sentence, not word-by-word).
- Start with your final sentence and work back to your first.
- Are you making any logical leaps?
- Are your transitions clear?
4. SCRAP AND BUILD
to see if someone speed reading your essay could follow your main ideas
- Reframe your essay by tearing it down and rebuilding it from scratch, over and over
- Skim your paper, pausing at the words "and" and "or." Check on each side of these words to see whether the items joined are parallel. If not, make them parallel.
- If you have several items in a list, put them in a column to see if they are parallel.
- Listen to the sound of the items in a list or the items being compared. Do you hear the same kinds of sounds? For example, is there a series of "-ing" words beginning each item? Or do your hear a rhythm being repeated? If something is breaking that rhythm or repetition of sound, check to see if it needs to be made parallel.
(found at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/623/01/; accessed 2011/07)
Q: HOW DO I IMPROVE MY TOPIC SENTENCES SO THAT READERS WILL UNDERSTAND, BELIEVE AND CARE ABOUT MY STORY EVEN IF THEY ARE SPEED READING?
Topic Sentences: You can tell what the topic of the first body paragraph is by reading the topic sentence, which is the first sentence in the paragraph.
The topic sentence tells your reader the main idea of the paragraph. As a writer, you need to know the main idea in order to develop your paragraph with facts to support that idea.
As an exercise, strip your essay down to only the topic sentences. Ask yourself:
- Does your story make sense?
- Will a non-expert be able to understand what happened?
- Do you appear in your own topic sentences?
- Are you the star / hero of your own story?
- Do your verbs convey power?
My clients often get lost in the details when writing their first drafts of leadership (and other) essays. They feel the need to explain the situation first before showing their specific task and action steps taken to achieve the desired result.
In your next draft, work to put yourself at the center of the action.
Each body paragraph of your paper builds towards proving one particular aspect of your thesis, and each of these aspects should be crystallized into a strong topic sentence.
If your paper is quite short, these sentences might represent the main points you mentioned in the blueprint part of your thesis, but they might each be more specific aspects of one of those points, particularly if your paper is longer.
Defining your topics - First and foremost, a topic sentence is a piece of analysis, NOT summary. Think of it as an original interpretation based upon the facts of your story (not just a flat summary of your topic).
The first of the following examples illustrates a statement of fact, rather than an argumentative topic sentence.
- Weak Topic Sentence: "Book Five of Paradise Lost concentrates on the conversation between Adam and the archangel Raphael."
- Strong Topic Sentence: "Throughout Book Five, Milton utilizes images of gardening and nourishment to convey man's maturing relationship to the divine."
(found at http://www.essayedge.com/academics/writingadvice/course/lessonthree.html; accessed 2011/09)
SHOW, DON'T TELL
"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." — Anton Chekov
Many writers will say that there is really only one rule for good writing: Show, don't tell.
* To "show" means to demonstrate.
* To "tell" means to assert.
For example, we may say, "He is sloppy." This is telling.
For example, we may say, "His shoelaces are untied, his socks are mismatched, his shirt untucked, and his face unwashed." This is showing.
In order to truly convince your readers, make sure to show with details exactly what you mean. Save your assertions for the topic and controlling sentences.
You can't tell us someone is a wonderful person, a talented musician or a spoiled child. We won't believe you. You must show us. Throughout your manuscript, look for any opportunity to show us in real time, to act out, to let us feel. The difference will amaze you.
Essay Tip: Show, Don’t Tell
There is an old journalistic maxim, “Show, don’t tell,” which demands that writers show their actions to express an event or story and not just offer the results of what happened.
Tell (Results Oriented):
“I arrived at ABC Bank and took on a great deal of responsibility in corporate lending. I managed diverse clients in my first year and earned the recognition of my manager. Because of my hard work, initiative and leadership, he placed me on the management track, and I knew that I would be a success in this challenging position.”
In the two sentences above, the reader is told that the applicant “took on a great deal of responsibility,” “managed diverse clients,” and “earned recognition,” none of which is substantiated via the story. Further, there is no evidence of “hard work, initiative and leadership.”
Show (Action Oriented):
“Almost immediately after joining ABC bank, I took a risk in asking management for the accounts left by a recently transferred manager. Soon, I expanded our lending relationships with a children’s clothing retailer, a metal recycler and a food distributor, making decisions on loans of up to $1MM. Although I had a commercial banking background, I sought the mentorship of our District Manager and studied aggressively for the CFA (before and after fourteen-hour days); I was encouraged when the Lending Officer cited my initiative and desire to learn, placing me on our management track….”
In the example above, the story shows the “great deal of responsibility” (client coverage/ $1MM lending decisions) and “diverse clients” (a children’s clothing retailer, a metal recycler and a food distributor). Further, “hard work, initiative and leadership” are clear throughout.
The latter is a more interesting, rich and humble paragraph – one that is more likely to captivate the reader. By showing your actions in detail, the same conclusions are drawn, but facts facilitate them. Essentially, facts become your evidence!
(found at http://www.mbamission.com/blog/2010/11/22/monday-morning-essay-tip-show-dont-tell-2/; accessed 2010/11)
Sources and more links here:
How To Edit Your Own Writing (Self-Editing)
Editing takes considerable patience. I list below some reasonable ideas for each edit cycle. The sequence that you execute these steps may impact the style you produce; experiment a bit to see what order works best for your writing. You will know you are done editing when you are positively sick and tired of reading your work again.
A. Dictionary Check
Go through your document and look up in a dictionary any words where you aren't 101 percent sure of their meaning. I've surprised myself a couple of times when I have used a word repeatedly only to look it up and find it has another meaning entirely.
B. Action and Active Voice
Your writing will be clearer if you structure your sentences as subject-verb-object; tell action rather than describing situations. Use your word processor to search for words ending in "-ed" -- if you preceded this word by "is" or "was" (or similar verbs) the phrase would be better rewritten. Also check for the word "there" followed by "is" or "are" (or similar verbs).
D. Be Positive
Occasionally the word "not" is useful for emphasis. Most of the time though a sentence is stronger when positive; use your word processor to search for the word "not" and recast the sentence using other descriptives.
E. Drown Your Darlings
If something sticks in your mind as being "ever so clever" you probably should remove it.
F. Re-order Your Words and Sentences
Keep related words together -- adjectives next to their nouns.
MY ESSAY IS STILL TOO LONG! HOW DO I CUT WORDS?
- Read your essay aloud at full volume (doing so forces you to go slow).
- After each word or phrase, ask yourself, "If I cut this, will my meaning change?"
- If the answer is "no", then cut it!
More tips here, including this activity from the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), which is a fantastic resource for writers.
Summary: This resource will help you write clearly by eliminating unnecessary words and rearranging your phrases.
The goal of concise writing is to use the most effective words. Concise writing does not always have the fewest words, but it always uses the strongest ones. Writers often fill sentences with weak or unnecessary words that can be deleted or replaced. Words and phrases should be deliberately chosen for the work they are doing. Like bad employees, words that don't accomplish enough should be fired. When only the most effective words remain, writing will be far more concise and readable.
This resource contains general conciseness tips followed by very specific strategies for pruning sentences.
1. Replace several vague words with more powerful and specific words.
Often, writers use several small and ambiguous words to express a concept, wasting energy expressing ideas better relayed through fewer specific words. As a general rule, more specific words lead to more concise writing. Because of the variety of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, most things have a closely corresponding description. Brainstorming or searching a thesaurus can lead to the word best suited for a specific instance. Notice that the examples below actually convey more as they drop in word count.
Wordy: The politician talked about several of the merits of after-school programs in his speech (14 words)
Concise: The politician touted after-school programs in his speech. (8 words)
Wordy: Suzie believed but could not confirm that Billy had feelings of affection for her. (14 words)
Concise: Suzie assumed that Billy adored her. (6 words)
Wordy: Our website has made available many of the things you can use for making a decision on the best dentist. (20 words)
Concise: Our website presents criteria for determining the best dentist. (9 words)
Wordy: Working as a pupil under a someone who develops photos was an experience that really helped me learn a lot. (20 words)
Concise: Working as a photo technician's apprentice was an educational experience. (10 words)
2. Interrogate every word in a sentence
Check every word to make sure that it is providing something important and unique to a sentence. If words are dead weight, they can be deleted or replaced. Other sections in this handout cover this concept more specifically, but there are some general examples below containing sentences with words that could be cut.
Wordy: The teacher demonstrated some of the various ways and methods for cutting words from my essay that I had written for class. (22 words)
Concise: The teacher demonstrated methods for cutting words from my essay. (10 words)
Wordy: Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood formed a new band of musicians together in 1969, giving it the ironic name of Blind Faith because early speculation that was spreading everywhere about the band suggested that the new musical group would be good enough to rival the earlier bands that both men had been in, Cream and Traffic, which people had really liked and had been very popular. (66 words)
Concise: Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood formed a new band in 1969, ironically naming it Blind Faith because speculation suggested that the group would rival the musicians’ previous popular bands, Cream and Traffic. (32 words)
Wordy: Many have made the wise observation that when a stone is in motion rolling down a hill or incline that that moving stone is not as likely to be covered all over with the kind of thick green moss that grows on stationary unmoving things and becomes a nuisance and suggests that those things haven’t moved in a long time and probably won’t move any time soon. (67 words)
Concise: A rolling stone gathers no moss. (6 words)
3. Combine Sentences.
Some information does not require a full sentence, and can easily be inserted into another sentence without losing any of its value. To get more strategies for sentence combining, see the handout on Sentence Variety.
Wordy: Ludwig's castles are an astounding marriage of beauty and madness. By his death, he had commissioned three castles. (18 words)
Concise: Ludwig's three castles are an astounding marriage of beauty and madness. (11 words)
Wordy: The supposed crash of a UFO in Roswell, New Mexico aroused interest in extraterrestrial life. This crash is rumored to have occurred in 1947. (24 words)
Concise: The supposed 1947 crash of a UFO in Roswell, New Mexico aroused interest in extraterrestrial life. (16 words)
(found at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/572/01/; accessed 11/2010)
MORE WRITING TIPS
One of my writing gurus is Professor John Cochrane at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. His "Writing Tips for Ph.D. Students" contains good advice for any writer. Here are some highlights from his article.
- Use simple short words not big fancy words. “Use” not “utilize.” “Several” not “diverse”.
- Keep down the number of clauses in your sentences, and the number of things kept hanging.
- Every sentence should have a subject, verb and object. No sentences like “No sentences like this.”
- Vince Best Resume Tips
- Outline your essays before writing a full draft
- Got frame? How to write MBA admissions essays
- Start with common frameworks, then customize your answers fit each question
- Make a fresh start with each new application
- How to write your life story
- How to write email messages that get results
- Improve your writing: How to Avoid Vince’s "Dirty Dozen"
- Common spelling and grammar errors (not picked up by spell checkers)
Need more hints? Check out Vince's best writing links here ▸ http://www.delicious.com/admissions/writing